Monday, June 6, 2011

The Joab Factor: Constrained by the Company One Keeps - Part 7 of a series based on 2 Samuel 11 & 12

The Uriah affair put King David under obligation to Joab for as long as David lived. No doubt the broad outlines of the treachery that ended Uriah’s life were understood by any in Israel who cared to concern themselves with it. But there is no evidence that the details of the sordid events were ever officially disclosed or admitted. David confessed to Nathan, under pressure, that he had sinned in what he had done. That his repentance was genuine no one doubts. But there was no “higher authority” with the power to indict and punish the king, let alone publish the incriminating details. There certainly was nothing to be gained by spilling those sordid details before the court, the army, and the people.

Or was there? It would have been dicey for the King to go before the nation and reveal his misdeeds, repent before God and the people, and ask for their forgiveness and loyalty. As it turned out it was too dicey for David, but one can wonder how much better the latter years of his reign might have gone if he had exhibited that kind of moral courage. By choosing not to do so he lived the rest of his life under the shadow of an “open secret” that hamstrung his ability to control either his generals, his sons, and probably his wife. It was to the benefit of everyone in David’s entourage to “keep the secret.” It represented power . . . over the king. Thus, David lived the rest of his life, hostage to all who had hard evidence of his guilt.

Joab was a nephew of King David, the son of David’s sister, Zuruiah. From the earliest days Joab had been impetuous and difficult for David to constrain. Joab’s actions in killing Abner, the commander of Saul’s armies, flew in the face of David’s wish to be conciliatory toward Israel after the collapse of Saul’s reign. The murder of Abner complicated David’s task of uniting the people of Judah and Israel into one nation. It is hard to tell if David’s mourning over Abner’s body was sincere or if it was an attempt to undo the damage Joab’s actions had done. David rued the fact that, though he was now king, he was nonetheless weak and unable to control “these sons of Zuruiah.” In the case of Joab it would only get worse after the death of Uriah.

The Uriah affair gave Joab more leverage over the king, more freedom to act on his own, eventually allowing him to briefly advocate for Abasalom’s return to Jerusalem, leading to the disastrous insurrection that drove David from the throne. Only because Joab had the audacity to defy David’s explicit instructions regarding the treatment of Absalom and kill the helpless rebel, as he hung by his hair in an oak tree, did the insurrection end allowing David to resume his reign, albeit weakened further still, and beholden even more to Joab.

Sin has many consequences, the most deadly being its power to drive the sinner, irrevocably, from the grace of God. Such was not the case with David; he clung to his God as tenaciously as any one recorded in Scripture or history. But his life illustrates another consequence, the emasculation of a man who, in the beginning, held great promise. The greatest gift David could have given his son was a unified nation, firmly committed to David and his successors. Instead his deathbed gift to Solomon was a list of men against whom scores needed to be settled, partly to assuage longstanding grudges David held against them, but also to remove those who would threaten the new king’s power as he ascended to the throne. It is no wonder that the “united kingdom” lasted only through Solomon’s reign.

An old Asian proverb – slightly revised – provides sad commentary on the reign of King David, “A great man is [only] as great as his great men.”

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